Every Friday during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. They kick things off today with a question about what's expected to be a dominant New England defense:
WHO WILL LEAD THE 2019 PATRIOTS IN SACKS?
They haven’t had a player register double-digit sacks since Chandler Jones had 12.5 in 2015. Trey Flowers led them the past three seasons with modest totals of 7.5, 6.5 and 7.0. It’s a scheme thing.
The Patriots have been less inclined to bring pressures (five rushers) or blitzes (six or more) to get mismatch numbers up front. They don’t want their coverage guys left exposed.
They also prefer bringing controlled pressure with their front working in concert to keep the quarterback walled off from scrambling or rolling out of the pocket.
But the success they had bringing pressure in the 2018 postseason and some of the talent they have up front may mean a philosophical alteration in 2019. The Patriots are going to get after quarterbacks.
And a rookie shall lead them. Chase Winovich, third-rounder from Michigan, will lead the team in sacks this season with 9.5.
All preseason stats come with the asterisk that they were compiled in August but in three games, Winovich had 2.5 sacks, 12 pressures and a 36.7 pass rush win rate. Winovich opened the eyes of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin who compared Winovich to his own pass-rush nuisance T.J. Watt, saying, “(Watt) was mature beyond his years in terms of his skills relative to his position. His hand usage, his awareness in terms of his rush. His overall in-game awareness. His motor. He had a lot of positive attributes."
This year, you’ll see the same from Winovich, who stands to benefit from the presence of Michael Bennett who will probably get the bulk of the blocking attention. With Flowers gone, somebody has to pick up the slack. It will be Winovich.
Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one.
It’s obvious that Chase Winovich is a legitimate NFL talent. It’s obvious that the Patriots — who’ve loaded up on athletic outside linebacker types — have a variety of pass-rushers to deploy on third down. But, to me, the obvious answer to this question is Michael Bennett.
The Patriots replaced their sack leader of the last three years, Trey Flowers, with someone who’s exceeded Flowers’ career-high in sacks in five of the last seven seasons. Save for 2014 — when Bennett was the most disruptive player on the best defense in football — and 2016, he’s had at least 8.5 sacks every season since 2012.
Bennett might not be as long or as stout at the point of attack as Flowers. He might not be as sturdy against the run game. But he looks like a better pass-rusher, even at this stage in his career, using his superior quickness off the line to get blockers off-balance, then attacking them with well-refined moves to win.
Expect to see Bennett rush off the edge (as he did in Philadelphia) as well as from the interior (as he did in Seattle) and find success from both spots. Where I believe he’ll be particularly effective is when lined up as a zero-technique nose tackle — right over the center — in New England’s “amoeba” fronts. In obvious passing situations, the Patriots will go to Bennett as the lone down-lineman on the line of scrimmage and then surround him with wandering stand-up pass-rushers.
The effect? Confusion on the offensive line. Who’s rushing? Who’s dropping into coverage? It created chaos for the Patriots late last season and helped create one-on-ones at the line. At times, with a disoriented lineman, there will be a blocker blocking air while someone tries to handle a talented rusher solo. If that happens with Bennett, where he’s lined up on less athletic centers, he’ll win those battles more often than not.
I could see Winovich making a big impact as a rusher. Same goes for Kyle Van Noy, who’ll play primarily off the edge. But those players will be rotated a bit. Jamie Collins, Shilique Calhoun and John Simon will factor into the mix at that position, as could Dont’a Hightower. And those players will he asked to drop into coverage occasionally. Expect Bennett out there — and only getting up the field — for most third downs.
More opportunity, more pass-rush talent than the Patriots have had in a while. That should lead to Bennett pacing this group when it comes to sacks.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.